Improving access to fresh food in Labrador

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Labrador is much like the rest of Canada’s north. Indigenous peoples have hunted, fished and raised their families on these lands for generations. The land has suffered from the impacts of colonization, as have its people. Resource extraction has changed the face of the land. Rivers have been diverted, habitat has been lost, causing a shift in migratory patterns of the caribou, and increased levels of methylmercury continue to affect fish and sea life in the Mishtashipu, now officially called the Churchill River, more than 40 years after the construction of the first hydroelectric project. Depletion of the caribou herds has resulted in a complete hunting ban and the government also places restrictions on hunting migratory birds and fish. In Labrador, gaining access to fresh, healthy and culturally appropriate food is more and more difficult each year. Yet in face of these challenges indigenous communities mobilize to address food and nutrition needs.

“No more than one a week to eat from the river,” Innu elder, Elizabeth Penashue, told me as we sat next to the Mishtashipu and talked about the pollution in the river. Only one rusted sign outside the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay warns people to limit consumption of fish caught in the river due to pollution. Penashue thinks there should be more warnings.

Access to quality, fresh food is a challenge in Labrador. Because of the area’s remoteness, shipping is expensive and can be slow. Walking into grocery stores in the winter and finding bare shelves is not unusual. Depending on the weather, that happens in the coastal communities throughout the summer, too. The cost of food is so high that people often eat cheaper, less nutritious and more processed foods just to help make ends meet.

The Community Food Hub, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, began in 2008 as a community project initiated by the local health authority and has grown into its own non-profit organization offering food education and programming in Labrador. An estimated 80% of the people served by the Community Food Hub identify as indigenous. The hub aims to address the community’s lack of healthy and culturally appropriate foods. MCC began a formal partnership with the Community Food Hub in 2012, when the food hub’s need for a part-time food security coordinator to complement and focus volunteer efforts became evident.

Currently the Community Food Hub facilitates several different programs. The hub’s children’s garden, in which an average of 190 students from two schools participate annually, is one of the hub’s most successful programs. The garden offers an opportunity for students in grades 4 and 5 to plant, care for, harvest and cook their own foods. Students have tried new vegetables, participated in the hard work of garden maintenance and cared for plants at home. Parents are also involved, and many have reported eating new foods and growing vegetables at home as a result of the program.

Community kitchens are another way of engaging the community. Focusing on low income families, the community kitchens provide opportunities for men and women to learn how to make low cost, healthy meals with others. Participants cook and eat together, after which they take the ingredients home to replicate the meal for their families. One of the surprising outcomes of this program is the online community-building it has facilitated. Members of the group share recipes, stories and pictures of their creations with one another, encouraging community.

The Community Food Hub works closely with the local agricultural association, ensuring that information about locally grown foods gets into the hands of shoppers. A community outdoor market program was started by the hub in 2013 in cooperation with the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the agricultural association. Farmers were invited every Saturday between July and September to join the market. The market also showcased locally made goods and offered fair trade coffee. Workshops on food preservation and wild food gathering were presented, along with demonstrations and trainings to encourage local gardening. In 2015, the Community Outdoor Market ceased being a program of the hub and continues successfully under the guidance of community volunteers. The hub nevertheless remains engaged with the market, setting up healthy eating and living displays at the market each week.

Initially, the hub began a community freezer project, hoping to provide food from the land gathered by local volunteers, such as fish, wild game and berries, to people who unable to hunt and gather on their own. It started with some exciting donations, like moose and caribou meat. However, due to reduced hunting quotas and people needing to save their catch for their own consumption in the winter, food donations were limited and the project ended. A similar project run by the Nunatsiavut Government is still available for seniors and shut-ins when food is able to be harvested or donated for distribution.

The challenges of food security continue to increase. Today, another large infrastructure project, the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric (or Muskrat Falls) Dam, threatens the health of the waters and way of life for the people who live in central and eastern Labrador. All three indigenous groups in the area (the Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and Innu nations), have come together to demand either the clearing of vegetation in the new reservoir in order to reduce imminent methylmercury poisoning and perhaps even to stop the dam completely. While the Community Food Hub is not directly involved in protesting, it does organize educational events to raise awareness about the effects of methylmercury in the local food system.

Food security and nutrition challenges have no easy answer in the North. Increasing access to fresh, local food from community gardens, children’s gardens and farmers’ markets can generally happen only in July, August and September. Freezing and canning meat and produce can help bridge the gap, but the winter period when food cannot be locally produced is long. Freezing and canning food is also expensive compared to the alternative of buying processed food during the winter months. Long term solutions are needed, but, for now, the Community Food Hub offers a partial solution with its ongoing focus on education to help people learn how to make healthier choices with available resources.

Dianne Climenhage is an MCC representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Learn more

 Council of Canadian Academies. Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge. Ottawa: The Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, Council of Canadian Academies, 2014.

Islam, Durdana and Fikret Berkes. “Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries and Food Security: A Case from Northern Canada.” Food Security 8/4 (2016): 815-826.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s